The Norse in Films: An Extrapolation of Roland Barthes’ THE ROMANS IN FILMS (by Chris Forest)

Throughout his essay, The Romans in Films, Roland Barthes addresses the tendency for cinema, especially in his times, to fall back on symbols and tropes that are neither fully artificial, nor fully grounded in the reality beyond the silver screen. Specifically, he sites how Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar tends to fall back on the use of the roman fringe haircut, so as to help cast his mostly non-roman actors in a more convincing light. In fact, Barthes considers this use of the hair-cut a bit excessive, citing that “some of them [are] curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history,” (26.2-4). In so discussing this recurring symbol, along with the excessive sweating attributed to the “violent, cataclysmic operation” of thought, as Barthes so sarcastically words it, he helps to address the silliness, even deceitfulness, of these depictions of ancient antiquity (27.40-28.1). In relying on these visual cues, they help to infuse falsehood into the truth of what was Rome, muddying our perceptions of the great civilization until we’re left with an artifice bearing only aesthetic similarities to the original. In effect, “they postulate a ‘nature’ which they have not even the courage to acknowledge fully,” (27.17). In such a way, the film becomes devalued, for it brings to the table something that is neither new and invented, nor something grounded in time-tested truth. It’s an empty depiction of the source material, which lies in a dissonant grey area between overt superficiality and an honest attempt at accuracy, which, especially by modern standards, only helps to take away from the film.

Of course, Barthes assertions need not be limited to the Hollywood depictions of Rome, either, for there are many other ethnic groups and civilizations that cinema has half-heartedly depicted for the sake of art. Consider, for example, the many depictions of medieval Scandinavia, with it’s blood-thirsty Vikings, wearing their horn-crowned helms as they pillage, plunder and make merry through pop-culture. To the casual onlooker, these things are so normalized that they’ve been taken for granted, to the point that even the most modern depictions of them hold to these tropes, as historically inaccurate as they’ve been found to be. Consider, for example, how they’re shown in this trailer for For Honor, a new and highly anticipated fighting game where Vikings are pitted against Knights and Samurai after a great calamity:

Strong, stoic, and raring for battle. They’re the height of Anglo-Saxon virility, some might say. This is the symbol we’ve crafted in the Viking’s wake. This is the inner warrior many men wish to breed within themselves. And yet, it could never speak for the full depth of who they really were. Even the term “Viking,” we’ve found, refers not to the whole of Scandinavian civilization, but to the smaller percentage of pirates and raiders who came out of a larger, far more colorful people than the common movie goer (or, in the above case, gamer) would care to believe.

To begin deconstructing this symbol, consider the iconic helmet, with it’s animal horns. They’ve come to represent a certain inner animosity, epitomizing the inner animal the Scandinavians unleashed in battle. However, no historical evidence exists to suggest such helms were ever worn into battle. In fact, overwhelming evidence suggests that it’s an invention of Germanic operas, during a time of German nationalism around the time of the eighteenth century.

Furthermore, they weren’t all brutes and thugs. Quite the contrary, many were proficient sailors and traders, able to make it to North America at a time when modern compasses weren’t even a thing.

Overall, like Mankiewicz’s Romans, how we depict the Vikings today is largely a hybrid between the truth of what happened in those days and an invention by those cultures that preceded them, seeding lies into the public consciousness as if they were truths. That said, though, what is true is the fact that these terrifying, fascinating raiders have come to symbolize everything we fear, and yet also everything many male individuals aspire to. Free, strong, stoic and proud, the symbol of the Vikings have mustered men together in the name of virility, as a token of Germanic nationalism, an avatar for a gamer’s fiery determination to succeed, and many other facets of manliness across the ages. In effect, they say more about us than they do about the historical Scandinavians themselves. So, even if they help to paint a deceitful picture of the way things were long ago, they still speak to us on a deep, visceral level. Perhaps such is why the myth of the Norsemen still survives, even in the wake of the truth.


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